|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 17, 2009 - Like all lobbyists and industry advocates, Stuart Blumberg works behind the scenes to advance his agenda. But the president of Miami-Dade's largest hotel trade group is best known for his actions in the spotlight.
In 2007, Blumberg chastised the Miami Beach City Commission for dragging its feet on a proposed renovation to the city convention center. "You talk a good game, but you don't walk the walk," he told the panel.
Last year Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association, angered even some in his own industry when he proposed a new tax on restaurants outside of Miami-Dade County to help close Florida's budget gap.
And this year, Blumberg took on Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess over a plan to fund a new Miami baseball stadium with county hotel taxes. Burgess predicts hotel taxes will rebound enough in 2011 to cover the debt; Blumberg disagrees.
Blumberg's public opposition to Burgess came despite the Greater Miami hotel association depending on the county for about half of its $400,000 annual budget. (The county's other main advocate for hotels, the hotel-tax-funded Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, declined to participate in the stadium debate.)
At 72, Blumberg makes no apologies for speaking up, stirring the pot and jabbing elbows.
He points to success both locally and in Tallahassee: exempting pool decks and outdoor patios from a 2002 constitutional amendment banning smoking, and helping delay the school year start so that Florida teenagers could continue traveling and working shifts at hotels.
More recently, he cites a continuing battle to defeat a rental-car fee that would fund transportation projects, and this summer's agreement by Miami Beach to pursue a $55 million renovation of the convention center funded by county bonds.
"I've never been one not to continue to bang my head against a concrete wall, hoping to make a dent," he said.
The Miami Herald visited Blumberg in his Lincoln Road office, where framed newspaper articles quoting him share wall space with caricatures and photos of Jackie Gleason. Blumberg got to know the Great One after Gleason brought his show to Miami Beach, and then agreed to a consulting deal at the Hilton Plaza, which Blumberg opened as general manager in 1967.
It's the Castle apartments now, one of many changes Blumberg has seen in his 53 years working on the beach -- a career that started in 1956 when Blumberg worked his first shift as a bellhop at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour (demolished two years ago to make way for a St. Regis).
In the interview, he talks about the long odds of a new luxury hotel opening on Miami Beach, the slog ahead for South Florida's hospitality industry and the last time he talked to his friend David Sampson, president of the Florida Marlins.
Q: Since 1956, which would you say has been the worst year for the hotel industry?
A: The one we're in now.
We have gone through 9/11. We've gone through riots. We've gone through tourists being murdered. We've gone through hurricanes.
We've gone through everything a destination can deal with. We've gone through transformations. We've gone through when there was no South Beach. We've gone through when the jet planes flew overhead, the world shrunk and all of a sudden Miami Beach no longer was relevant.
None of that compares to what the last 12 months have been in this industry.
Q: But how much of that is the function of hotels ramping up their rates during the boom years, and now are having to correct?
A: I don't think they ramped up their rates. The public was willing to pay more for the destination. It ramped up accordingly in terms of supply and demand. If there is great demand, you raise your rates. It's like everything else.
Q: Does the Greater Miami market have too many luxury hotel rooms?
A: No. And I say no quickly because 10 years ago, 11 years ago, we didn't have any. Other than the original Grand Bay in the Grove . . . that was our luxury hotel.
Now, I will say we're probably not going to see any more. The latest to open has been the W here in Miami Beach, although [the Miami Met Marquis, a JW Marriott hotel] is under construction in downtown Miami.
I think we've seen the end of luxury hotels coming here. Unless someone tears down the old Sonesta Beach out in Key Biscayne and puts up a luxury [hotel] there. I don't think there's ever going to be another new hotel built on Miami Beach.
Q: For how long?
A: It could be a long time. It could be forever. There's no land on the oceanfront.
Q: Do you feel there's risk a significant hotel could close here in the next 12 months?
A: No. Nope, not at all.
In 54 years, I've never seen a hotel close here for economic reasons. With everything we've been through, they may go bankrupt, like the Fontainebleau did and be taken out of bankruptcy.
Q: What about just shutting down and keeping the air conditioning on?
A: No. Once you shut down your hotel, you're considered out of business.
Q: Let's talk about the hot topic of the year: the Marlins stadium. What impact do you think paying the debt service on the stadium with hotel taxes is going to have on the industry. Do you feel that will take away marketing dollars?
A: No. The stadium in itself? No.
What I'm here to say, which I've said publicly, is I don't think the rebound that's been projected for next year [in Burgess's hotel tax forecast] is going be sufficient enough to carry the [stadium] debt from the bed-tax revenue. And I do believe, based on the financial stuff I've seen around, [the debt payments] will come from the general fund.
This is not 9/11. Anyone who sees a rebound equivalent to it doesn't understand our industry.
Q: In that stadium debate [when Blumberg urged upgrades to the Miami Beach Convention Center instead of a new baseball stadium], why didn't we see hoteliers speak up?
A: It's a good question. It's a very sensitive question to me.
The question involving the upgrade of the convention center is now approaching, what, year nine?
Well there are no general managers left in that industry that were here from when that . . . debate began. This new breed of hoteliers is not so embracing of that convention center.
Q: When's the last time you talked to David Sampson?
A: David called me after the final vote on baseball. He told me he was surprised I wasn't one of the first people to congratulate him.
I said, "David as much as I admire your perseverance, you and Jeffrey [Loria, the team's owner], and what you've accomplished, I still don't believe it's the best use of the money."
Q: What did he say?
A: He hung up. [Laughs.]
Q: Without saying goodbye?
A: It happens. [Sampson denies hanging up on Blumberg.]
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